'Katrina Washed Away Our Gigs': How New Orleans Got Its Groove Back


In the decade since the levees failed after Hurricane Katrina, nearly drowning New Orleans, there were concerns that the Big Easy’s unique, crucial music culture had been swept away with the neighborhoods that the storm surge demolished.

Survive, the music has. But despite the city’s laissez-faire nickname, music’s climb back from the near-death experience hasn’t been easy.


John Cleary, left, with his band (photo courtesy of joncleary.com)

After Katrina, loss was everywhere one turned in New Orleans — city blocks disappeared in the Eighth and Ninth Wards, Faubourg Tremé, St. Claude, Backatown, Lakeshore, St. Bernard parish, New Orleans East, Lakeshore, Iberville, and more. Irvin Mayfield lost his father. Fats Domino was rescued from the roof of his Ninth Ward home; he later returned to find his pianos ruined and gold records covered with mud. Irma Thomas’s house was underwater and her Lion’s Den nightclub was just gone. There were hundreds of hard-luck stories.

“I couldn’t assess anything in the aftermath. No one could. It was chaos,” says New Orleans R&B pianist-songwriter Jon Cleary, who recorded part of his new album Go Go Juice (FHQ Records) at his studio in the Bywater district. “I was too busy trying to keep my band together and get work.”

As a British kid who – inspired by his uncle’s collection of funky 45 RPM singles – moved to New Orleans to be immersed in its music and worked his way up from doing odd jobs in nightclubs, Cleary can see things as both an insider and outsider. And he saw that the real toll could be counted in lives of the people who survived as well as those who didn’t. According to Mother Jones, more than 400,000 people were displaced from their homes in the New Orleans area.

“What did New Orleans lose? It lost New Orleanians,” says Cleary while on a train to a concert in London with his New Orleans band. “The city’s soul battery was depleted and has been running low since.


late drummer/WWOZ host Bob French, an initial Musicians’ Village resident, with friends (photo courtesy of New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity)

“The music wasn’t washed away,” the gritty piano man continues, “but the people who make the music and [the communities that have] traditionally produced the musicians were largely displaced. At this stage, many of them are probably never coming back at this point. The old generation of R&B musicians [think “Paul Gayten, Dave Bartholomew, Wardell Quezergue, and Allen Toussaint”] that I and my contemporaries learned from was [already] getting old and dying off. Our job is to take what we learned from the previous generation, write new material, and make new records.”

Those sentiments are plainly represented on “Bringing Back the Home,” a song from Cleary’s new Go Go Juice disc. “The song started out as ‘Breaking Up the Home’ because that’s what seemed to be happening,” Cleary relates. “New Orleans was fragile and if you break something into pieces, you’re never sure how it’s going to look after you’ve tried to glue it back together.”

But Cleary decided to take a different angle with the lyrics and tout New Orleans’s role as home to “America’s greatest gift to the world” — jazz, funk, rhythm and blues, and soul. “Everyone was writing maudlin songs about levees, and I decided pretty quickly that I didn’t want to be part of that. So I sat on the song and eventually changed the lyric to ‘Bringing Back the Home’ in an effort to take a more positive look at what was happening. The buildings were damaged, but the real lifeblood of New Orleans is its people.”

In Da Hood

One of the great joys in New Orleans is coming upon scrappy brass bands on the street corners, busking for cash with their mash of traditional jazz lines, street funk, and hip-hop cred. And that uniquely NOLA mash is made possible when different generations of musicians can meet and collide musically in communal incubators like the city’s neighborhoods.

Some of New Orleans’s most vital music and creative styles have been products of its neighborhoods, breeding grounds where friends got together to create music and bands — like Kermit Ruffins and the Frazier Brothers, inspired by how the Dirty Dozen Brass Band jazz traditions, who formed the Rebirth Brass Band, and Corey Henry and friends, who got together for the Lil’ Rascals Brass Band. Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews grew up in Tremé, where he learned his riffs from relatives in his extended musical family and from neighborhood heroes like Tuba Fats and Frog.


building Musicians’ Village (photo courtesy of New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity)

When the storm surge from Katrina rammed through the man-made levees and obliterated the neighborhoods in its path, many of these breeding grounds vanished, and their residents were scattered in exile. At one point it was estimated that there were more of the Crescent City’s musicians in Houston than in New Orleans.

Whether this was hyperbole or not, it certainly seemed the case. As several players put it, Katrina washed away their gigs. Tourists stayed away and the musicians who were still in town lost much of their livelihood. Clubs were lost permanently (Lion’s Den) or temporarily (Rock’n’Bowl). The few gigs that existed paid far less than they did previously. NOLA talent had to look to touring to earn a living. And the city’s brass bands were more likely to lead processions paying solemn respect to the 1,800-plus that died than their regular celebratory Sunday second-line parades of Social Aid and Pleasure Club dancers.

“We felt like we needed our own second-line [parade] just because of what we had gone through,” says Bennie Pete, fonder and sousaphone player for the hard-funk masters The Hot 8 Brass Band, 20-year veterans on the scene. “We missed the fans, the other musicians, the clubs.”

There were even questions whether the venerable Jazz & Heritage Festival — a grand annual celebration of the region’s homegrown talent pool and second only to Mardi Gras in tourism dollars — would stage its 37th edition in 2006.

After the Flood

With a bit of reorganization and new corporate sponsors including Shell Oil, the show did go on. Bruce Springsteen returned to Jazz Fest to deliver an electrifyingly emotional set — certainly a career moment — that touched both still-shell-shocked locals and out-of-towners with a dedicated song list that included a tear-jerking rework of “My City of Ruins.” It was like Bruce was a preacher ministering to his wounded flock. Many who witnessed it justifiably consider Springsteen’s set to be a symbolic turning point in healing closure for the townfolk.

And those townfolk had a lot to recover from. In the aftermath of Katrina, there were 50,000 blighted homes in New Orleans and the city had lost over 100,000 (largely minority) residents. After a number of delays, Louisiana eventually received $76 billion of the $120 billion doled out by the federal government in post-Katrina recovery efforts over the last decade. Still, official government avenues were of little help in bringing the musicians and their families back home or helping them rebuild their neighborhoods. Instead of hiring locals and displaced natives to rebuild their hometown, the Feds imported cheap labor from elsewhere and put them up in hotels. Many who wanted to return to rebuild their own homes did not receive enough federal or insurance money to cover the costs of reconstruction.


Musicians’ Village home-owners (photo courtesy of New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity)

Bennie Pete of Hot 8 is one of the many who can tell that story. Before Katrina, Mr. Pete lived in a family home in a musician-laden neighborhood the Ninth Ward. Though damaged houses were being torn down around them, Pete’s family started working on rebuilding their home. But it became too much to finish. “People wanted to steal materials and that made it hard to do anything.” After a visit to the Upper and Lower Ninth Wards in 2006, Bruce Springsteen deemed the disregard for the neighborhoods’ plight “criminal ineptitude.” Today, the Lower Ninth Ward is still largely abandoned.

It Takes Thousands to Build a Village

Luckily, while officials weren’t providing much help beyond FEMA’s signature blue roof tarps, musicians, activists, foundation, and citizens and celebrities alike rose to fill the void. Outside of the government, it seemed like everyone wanted to help.

“Well-intentioned people, especially recently arrived outsiders, feel compelled to ‘do’ things, to get things organized,” Jon Cleary reflects. “But the vitality of New Orleans music historically has simply been people doing it for themselves. The city’s Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs are a good example.”

Cleary says that, like most New Orleanians, he is asked about Katrina on an almost daily basis. “We’re all very appreciative of the love and concern for our city that has been expressed by so many people.” But like most New Orleanians, he has spent 10 years “trying to forget Katrina.” In fact, such Katrina fatigue is widespread; many of those contacted to contribute their thoughts to this article respectfully declined.

“It’s a beautiful testament to the enduring power of human nature and to the quality of the music tradition that people feel an urgent desire to help,” Cleary says. “God bless them, and I don’t mean that to sound patronizing. I just worry that the wrong kind of ‘doing’ and ‘organizing’ can be the kiss of death.”

Happily, all the helping hands have aided significantly in righting the New Orleans music scene. There’s no shortage of people and organizations that deserve kudos for the projects that helped to revive the city and its culture. The Tipitina’s Musicians Foundation, started by the owners of the venerable nightclub, literally saved the lives of musicians in the early going and has donated $500,000 of new instruments. Jordan Hirsch founded the non-profit relief agency Sweet Home New Orleans. People’s Health sponsored the New Orleans Jazz Market, a performing arts venue and jazz community center that also provides rehearsal space for bands. Brad Pitt has built 100 of a planned 150 sustainable new homes with his Make It Right Foundation. The New Orleans Musicians Clinic provided health care services. The people and organizations that are worth a shoutout for their assistance in the recovery could fill their own phone book.


New Orleans Jazz Market (photo courtesy of kronbergwall.com)

And then there are the music mentoring programs and camps have helped to offset the loss of neighborhood breeding grounds and their organic creation of brass band/second-line/street culture by giving young musicians a real music education, among them: the annual Louis Armstrong Jazz Camp; Roots of Music, led by the Rebirth Brass Band’s Derrick Tabb; MusiCares; the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra; UNO’s Saturday Music School; and the Tipitina’s Internship Program spearheaded by saxophonist Donald Harrison. All of them share the mission set by the Trombone Shorty Foundation: “To preserve and perpetuate the unique musical culture of New Orleans by passing down its traditions to future generations of musicians.”

Helping out in New Orleans has almost been a required pilgrimage for concerned musicians over the last decade. John Legend, for example, washed clothes as part of free mobile laundry service for families living in trailers. Lil Wayne opened a skateboard park. Joss Stone put in some volunteer work. Fats Domino, himself a victim, recorded an album to raise funds for a Katrina relief charity.


recording studio at Ellis Marsalis Center (photo courtesy of WSDG/HShermanPR)

But perhaps the most noteworthy come-home project has been the Musician’s Village —conceived by musicians for musicians and their families. The Village was the brainchild of singer Harry Connick Jr. and saxophonist Branford Marsalis, who teamed with Habitat for Humanity “to construct a community and preserve a culture” by building 72 affordable single-family homes and five senior citizen duplexes around the new Elis Marsalis Center for Music, a performance, education and recording venue. More than 40,000 volunteers worked on the Habitat construction teams to create the new 8.2-acre neighborhood in the Upper Ninth Ward where residents can live, learn, and perform music.

HBO’s Tremé

While the locals were rebuilding their musical infrastructure, America was watching New Orleans bare its musical soul on the HBO television series Tremé, the Peabody award-winning drama named after the neighborhood considered the birthplace of jazz. For many involved, Tremé wasn’t just entertainment. It was a needed infusion of investment and interest in NOLA music and probably as true a document of post-Katrina life as one could hope from a television series. Many musicians whose gigs had been washed away by the flood had new ones with the series.

“David Simon and Eric Overmyer [the show’s creators] have said that they originally conceived of Tremé long before the flood as a show about New Orleans music,” says author Lolis Eric Elie, a story editor for Tremé. Elie has also been a columnist for New Orleans’s Times-Picayune newspaper and co-produced the award-winning documentary Faubourg Tremé: the Untold Story of Black New Orleans.. “So in that sense the music was always meant to be at the forefront.

“Most post-tragedy narratives focus on heroic stories of survival or tragic stories of destruction. Our show started months after the initial trauma. We didn’t focus on grand heroic gestures. Rather we focused on the heroism of dealing with everyday life. We tried to show that the heroism and uniqueness of New Orleans didn’t have to be exaggerated or manufactured. New Orleans people and our culture are interesting in ways that are more profound than sensational.”


a street corner in the Faubourg Tremé neighborhood (photo: Infrogmation/Wikimedia Commons)

Lolis Elis asserts that HBO’s producers and writers took pains to make sure that Tremé was fact-based. “We interviewed musicians and others not merely about music and gigs but also about various aspects of post-Katrina life,” he continues. “We were interested in how people got their lives back together. How they got health care. How the various music-related charities functioned. How they found places to live.”

While Tremé’s primary focus was the musicians, the series lovingly acknowledged the cooks, professors, contractors, lawyers, and plasterers who were part of the support systems for the musicians’ hometown souls. “Perhaps the biggest thing Tremé did for musicians was show sides of their lives not only away from the bandstand, but also away from the music world,” Elie says. “There were a few key incidents we portrayed, most notably the arrests of musicians, where we needed detailed, specific information to make the scenes as accurate as was appropriate.”

Respected jazz authority Larry Blumenfeld, who has written widely on post-Katrina New Orleans for the Wall Street Journal and other outlets, notes that Tremé was a boon to the stalled careers of some New Orleans musicians. “Tremé did a bunch of things,” he says. “It poured millions of dollars into the hands of New Orleans musicians and their associates. It broadcast real jazz, captured live in performance, and it gave all that some context. Now that it’s off the air, whether all that matters is anyone’s guess.”

Basin Street Records

Tremé can take at least some credit for pumping up interest in seeing live music in the Big Easy. “There are more people going to see live music now than at any point since we’ve been in business,” says Mark Samuels, president of the Grammy-winning New Orleans record label Basin Street Records, started in 1997.

Basin Street’s 11-artist roster spans a variety of New Orleans jazz and contemporary styles including brass bands, Dixieland, Latin, R&B, and rock — from Rebirth Brass Band and Henry Butler to Theresa Andersen and Davell Crawford. Forced to downsize by the flood, Basin Street went from a 3,000-square-foot office with six employees to a home office with two staffers.

“I realized that much of what I did could be done from a computer in a coffee shop,” Samuels quips. The leaner, meaner Basin Street has added three artists to its roster since Katrina and just released Kermit Ruffins’s new CD, #imsoneworleans, as well as New Orleans Jazz Playhouse, Irvin Mayfield’s impressive 300-page coffee table book that comes with seven CDs.

“There are also more places to see live music in New Orleans now than ever before,” says Samuels. “Three of our artists have their own spaces: Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse in the Royal Sonesta Hotel; Jeremy Davenport’s Lounge in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel; and Kermit Ruffins’s Tremé Mother-in-Law Lounge.”

Hot 8’s Bennie Pete agrees that clubs and groups in New Orleans are “back up and on. There might be different spots and different locations, but it’s still the same.”

But not all is well in musicland.

Culture Clash

In recent years, Donna’s Bar & Grill and the Funky Butt, two popular clubs on the north edge of the French Quarter that featured brass bands and local music, were forced to close. The roof of the building that housed Donna’s was about to cave in. The landlord, apparently hoping for real estate developers to buy him out, wasn’t interested in maintaining the building. Unwilling to invest more in a building they didn’t own, the club’s managers closed Donna’s doors in 2010. A new operator tried to reopen and was initially granted a zoning variance that was then rescinded.

Before Katrina, the operators of the Funky Butt, in a building owned by the same landlord, were trying to escape similarly decaying conditions by moving to the Frenchman Street area, still a live music hotspot in 2015. After the storm, another operator attempted to reopen the Funky Butt but was denied a live music license. Sadly, music is now a thing of the past on North Rampart, the street that runs beside Louis Armstrong Park’s historic Congo Square, where slaves would gather to play music and dance.

The takedowns of Donna’s and Funky Butt are examples that show that — even with a rejuvenated scene — the New Orleans music community is feeling the pressures of a concerted pushback tied to the city’s resurgence. Newly restrictive live music and street ordinances plus the ramp-up of gentrification accompany a vision that seemingly wants to turn New Orleans into a homogenized “Disneyland” version of itself. That “vision” has also brought excessive new fees for second-line parades (overturned in a court challenge), ongoing harassment of street musicians and Mardi Gras Indians, zoning laws that lock out music, and an expanding economy that has left much of black New Orleans behind.

Paradoxically, this pushback seeks to smother lifelines of the city’s crucial music heart, the very things that feed the recovering city’s economy — the music, traditions and cultural attractions that define New Orleans and attract over 9 million visitors who spend $6 billion a year there. WWOZ-FM’s David Freeman said the new ordinances could mean “the death of spontaneous culture in New Orleans.” Initially after Katrina, the task was just getting musicians back home. Now the job is to create a fair, workable balance between the whims of the new remade/remodeled New Orleans and support for the kinds of remarkable cultural inspiration that the created the city.

Or as mayor Mitch Landrieu told Larry Blumenfeld for WSJ last year: “There is a way to organize culture without killing it.” He forgot to add, especially a culture that sounds and feels like no place else.

Open for Discussion

Blumenfeld has followed this clash between musical tradition and residents of New Orleans being played out through ordinances, the City Council, and “laws that are out of tune.” He recently moderated “Ten Years After: The State of New Orleans Music and Culture,” a panel discussion organized to consider these very issues and their effect on brass bands, jazz musicians, Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs, music traditions, Mardi Gras Indian gangs, bounce and hip-hop artists, and other culture-bearers of the city.

“Tensions between the city and its culture are nothing new in New Orleans,” Blumenfeld says. “But the fast pace of change in the past few years — with new waves of gentrification — have raised the stakes on all sides for issues of city policies and their enforcement. How that plays out will directly affect the future of brass bands and second-line parades, Mardi Gras Indians, and live jazz in neighborhood clubs.”

The Hot 8 Brass Band’s Bennie Pete, also a panelist, notes that the city has been invoking noise ordinances and shutting down traditional brass band and second-line parades at a growing pace. “[City officials] use any violence in the area near the parades as an excuse to shut the parades down. It puts a black eye on our group and parades in general. The same with the music clubs, they’re trying to lock [the music] out.”

“Why? Why wouldn’t you let us do what everybody loves and respects? We are what they promote as their main attraction — people, culture, brass bands. They’re selling the city off our backs. [Our music culture] should be something nurtured and preserved, and not just by those of us living it. They could do a lot more to help us.

“In a way, it’s the same struggles as our ancestors.”

Movin’ on Up?

Though some complaints from new residents about the liveliness of the city’s culture seem akin to moving in next to a lighthouse and then complaining about the light, there are some legitimate quality of life concerns. And there is at least one New Orleans tradition that no one wants to see carried forward: its history of violence and shootings.

“I see the ‘noise’ argument from both sides,” says Cleary. “I remember joints like the Glass House and the Petroleum Lounge where second-lines would take to the streets at 2 in the morning. In those neighborhoods they’d been doing that for a so many years it was considered normal. The music was a part of the local culture. But transport a brass band to a corner in the French Quarter where they’re playing for tips for tourists, and you can’t be surprised when a local gets fed up with all the noise outside his or her window… One city, many different areas, many different cultures.

“What retarded the influx of outsiders into [certain New Orleans] neighborhoods in the past was, honestly, the fear of getting shot,” Cleary says, noting that gentrification and the loss of lower income people from traditional inner-city neighborhoods is a hot topic in many cities. “It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that people in historic areas like Tremé who owned their homes, sometimes for several generations, were delighted to see their property values increase and embraced the opportunity to get the hell out of what was probably for them a really grim place to bring up their kids.

“I loved it, many great people, several great bars, several great gigs. But honestly it was really a dangerous place to hang out. What arguably destroyed the great music scene in that neighborhood was a small number of local young men killing other local young men so regularly that the vast majority of the other locals wanted the joints closed down.”

New Orleans is clearly still Jon Cleary’s first love, but he isn’t as much of a cheerleader for the Crescent City music scene Katrina+10 as some are. “One barometer of the health of the local music scene is to find the answer to a simple question,” he says. “How much music can be found today that is New Orleans music played by New Orleans musicians to a New Orleans audience? And the answer is sadly not much.

“New Orleans has always produced a disproportionate amount of raw talent,” Cleary continues, remembering why he was so compelled to land there as a young musician. “It’s dysfunctional, though. It’s always been that way. It’s disorganized, it’s mayhem, it doesn’t have its s— together. And that’s one of the things I love about it. It’s eccentric, corrupt. Hugely frustrating, the place is a mess. We have drive-through daiquiri shops and bars that double as Laundromats. The place is/was bonkers.”

“There have been few bumps and bruises,” adds Hot 8’s Bennie Pete, “but people have come together; it’s coming together. There’s a new breed of musicians here but that gives us security, insurance that we’ll be around for the next generation.”

Laissez les bon temps rouler.